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italian bicycles through time
from davinci to bianchi how a sketch became an industry
By Christopher Pepe
(return to sports)

There is little dispute regarding the earliest and most comprehensive drawings of what is considered to be the modern "bicycle." Around the year 1500, the great Italian Leonardo DaVinci made several unmistakable sketches of a bicycle, complete with pedals, handlebar steering, spoked wheels, and a chain driving the rear wheel . Throughout the many years between DaVinci's sketches and the sleek and rugged machines of today, engineers and technicians around the world developed many variations of the bicycle. Adding at intervals pedals, steering, equal-sized wheels, pneumatic tires and gears. As time elapsed, the bicycle evolved into a popular mode of transportation, an entertaining leisure activity, and, before long, a competitive sport. But not until the late 1800's did the Italians emerge within the biking industry to reclaim the lead established by DaVinci's sketches to design and manufacture the world's greatest and most innovative bicycles.

evolution of the bicycle
The bicycle evolved in Europe in the 1790's from a little wooden horse with a fixed front wheel. At first, you could only maneuver this bicycle-like-horse with your feet because there were no pedals and the fixed front wheel prevented it from being steered. It was subsequently improved in Germany in 1817, when baron Karl von Drais developed a steerable front wheel to replace the fixed one. He called this invention a "dandy horse." Soon thereafter in 1839, the first pedals were introduced by a blacksmith from Scotland, Kirkpatrick Macmillan. As the bicycle continued its evolution, large front wheels remained the norm, because it was believed that the bigger the front wheel, the faster the bike.

In the early 1880's, the English took credit for the development of the "safety bicycle," the precursor to today's modern bicycle. This particular bike, the most similar resemblance to DaVinci's earliest sketches, had a chain, sprocket driving rear wheel and equal sized wheels . The years that followed saw the development of pneumatic tires (1880's), two and three speed hub gears (1890's), and derailleur gears (1899). The derailleur gear was the last major innovation of bicycle design until the 1970's. At that time bicycles became more aerodynamic and made use of more unconventional frames, and a new breed of bicycles, the mountain bike, was born.

pedaling back to the top
In the late-1800's, an Italian by the name of Edoardo Bianchi picked up where his fellow countryman, Leonardo DaVinci left off . Bianchi took the modern bicycle, studied it, and envisioned its future as a slick racing machine. At the time, the bicycle industry was growing, and Bianchi became more intrigued by the prospect of bicycle as sport. Bianchi envisioned the newly created sport as the ideal way to introduce the uninitiated masses to his bicycles. Putting his idea into practice, Bianchi sponsored a young racer, Giovanni Ferdinando Tomaselli, in the world's most prestigious cycling event, the 1899 Grand Prix of Paris (soon to be the Tour de France). Tomaselli won the event, and secured forever Bianchi's (and Italy's) place at the forefront of Bicycle design and craftsmanship.

Beginning with Bianchi's early initiatives, Italy has transformed the construction of bicycles into an art form. Comparable to the precision and detail used to create Deruta ceramics, or the knowledge and care required to harvest a Super Tuscan, Italian Bicycle makers have transformed bicycle manufacturing into a highly skilled craft - mentored through generations of watchful artisans. Many agree that it is because of this long line of Italian frame building masters that the world craves the subtle synthesis of science and practiced skill that results in a beautiful and efficient Italian racing machine.

bike fads come and go - recent trends
The role of the bicycle in Italian society has changed in the past few decades. In the 1940s, the bicycle was the only affordable means of transport for most Italians. In the 1950s and 1960s, the bicycle lost out to the popularity of the automobile. In the 1970s and the early 1980s, bikes were seen as a healthy and environmentally friendly means of transportation or recreation, useful for short-distance trips. As the rebirth of the bicycle in Italy began, the United States introduced the mountain bike and global demand for bicycles skyrocketed. The first mountain bikes hit the Italian market in the mid-1980's, and a much-needed boost to the depressed bicycle industry ensued.

As the demand for mountain bikes began to swell, Italian manufacturers did not recognize the importance of the mountain bike phenomenon. The Italian bicycle industry found itself unprepared for the trend toward mountain bikes and reacted in a self-destructive way. In 1990, the newspaper "Gazzetta dello Sport" noted that many Italian firms were importing low-priced mountain bikes from Taiwan, adding Italian saddles, and selling them as Italian products. Contrary to their traditions of quality, creativity and technical innovation, Italian bike manufacturers sold low-priced and often poor quality mountain bikes. As a result, Italian manufacturers briefly lost their historic leadership position in the bicycle industry. In recent years, in order to regain their prominence in the bicycle industry and meet import competition, Italian manufacturers have increased their production of high-performance mountain bikes.

Today, cycling is one of the most popular and increasingly important athletic activities in Italy. The successful introduction of mountain bikes, growing environmental awareness, more leisure time, and an expected increase of bicycles for commuting to work have all contributed to the bicycle's renewed popularity.

cyclo-tourism & sport
In the early 1990s, cyclo-tourism also gained popularity. Many specialized magazines suggested tour itineraries throughout Italy, and a significant number of cyclo-tourist associations were established. The development of cyclo-tourism helped to stimulate the Italian tourism trade, and lead to a greater demand for mountain and hybrid bicycles.

Cycling as a sport, whether it is for participants or spectators, has always held a special place in the hearts of Italians . Professional bike races, including Italy's Giro, the Tour de France, and Spain's Vuelta, are followed passionately by the Italian people. This mass interest in cycling as sport helps to make Italians among the world's most knowledgeable consumers of bicycles, and leads to many passionate "discussions."

nuts & bolts of italian bicycles
Italian bicycle manufacturers build their bikes to specific standards of threading and dimension.

Most parts on Italian dimension bicycles are interchangeable with British/ISO dimensioned parts. The major exception is the bottom bracket. Italian bottom brackets are 70 mm wide, as opposed to the usual 68 mm dimension of British/ISO and French bottom brackets. The cup diameter is also larger. Sometimes, bicycles which have damaged bottom-bracket threads are machined out to Italian size to eliminate the damaged threads. Italian bottom brackets, like the French, use a right-hand thread on both sides, so the fixed cup is prone to loosening up unless very securely tightened. Italian threading is a curious mixture of metric and British measures. Diameters are specified in millimeters, but threads are in threads-per-inch. In addition, the thread angle is 55 degrees, like the obsolete British Whitworth system, rather than 60 degrees like U.S. and metric threads. Italian freewheel (basically extinct) and headset threads are the same as British/ISO, except for the thread angle difference. They may be interchanged, but you should not go back-and-forth between Italian and British/ISO headsets.

View a brief listing of some of the most reputable and sought after Italian Bicycle manufacturers, including a brief history, a sample of their product, and contact information in Iitalian bicycle manufacturers.

Excerpts from "The bicycles and accessories market in Italy", January 1994, 
by A. Anselmini Dovigi, American Consulate General of Milan.


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